Self-fulfilling action

September 29, 1995

Helen Garrod was born with a form of dwarfism and spends much of her waking day in an electric wheelchair. Now 24, she recently left Nottingham University where she achieved a first-class honours degree in history and politics and left an uncompleted MA in critical theory.

Ms Garrod, who comes from Grays Thurrock in Essex, attended several special schools for the disabled and then a further education college in Cornwall before applying to universities. Many institutions wrote back advising her not to bother to apply because they did not have the facilities to cope. A handful had reputations for making an effort for disabled students - Nottingham, Loughborough, Lancaster and Southampton.

"Most of the rest of them have reputations for being quite bad," she says now. "Although some of them have recently improved." She applied to Southampton, but was put off by the fact that all the disabled students lived in the same building, and to Reading, which had very positive attitudes but which had not spent any money on facilities for the disabled.

Ms Garrod was attracted to Nottingham because its impressive open day suggested that it was very geared up to cope with disabled students. "It was very good public relations," she says. "It made the university seem to do more than it actually did."

At Nottingham "the access was not bad in 1991 when I applied. They were probably one of the better universities. She had good access to most of the departments and to her room in a residential hall. For the first two years, however, she was put in a room that was really too small for her with a cramped shared bathroom. Because she could walk a little, the most suitable rooms were given to students with greater disabilities.

In her third year she managed to get a more suitable room, largely, she says, because by this time Nottingham was taking fewer disabled students because other universities were attracting more having improved their own facilities.

However she did have trouble with access to the politics department, which was in a converted house. Most lecturers had rooms on the second and third floors but there was no lift. When she wanted to speak to them she had to phone from the ground floor. There was a portable ramp outside the building, but when sometimes this went missing she was reduced to banging on the secretaries' window.

She had groundfloor-level access to the library and the staff were helpful. Access to the students' union building was good in the daytime but became a problem at night when all the accessible entrances were locked for security reasons. The university authorities, she says, were also reluctant to put a ramp at the main entrance to the building because it did not look good.

Ms Garrod says a major problem was that the university was reactive rather than forward looking. It would make adaptations after a disabled student arrived. However, these could take a long time to implement and if, for example, there are no facilities for deaf students, then deaf students will not apply to the university.

She thinks Nottingham needs to think through its policy for disabled students across the institution, plan more and train staff to be aware of the needs of disabled students. A complication in her social life was that social events tended to happen in inaccessible clubs, or halls of residence or the students' union which she found difficult to get into at night.

At Nottingham Ms Garrod was quite active on the executive of the students union. She is now the first wheelchair user on the National Union of Students national executive. One of her interests is in improving the conditions of students with disabilities, and she says the NUS is now taking a much more active interest in the issue, asking students to do access audits and raising awareness of the issues involved.

"People's attitudes tend to be more of an obstacle than the physical impediment," she says. "People tend to see you as not being as able as you actually are and tend to see you as victims and as tragic, as a sort of object of charity. They also tend to see you as brave as well, another stereotype, when you are just trying to get on with your life. You can be very capable with the right support. You can achieve just as much as anybody else. You can enjoy your life."

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